WESTMINSTER, Md. – At 66, Leona Dell still lives two miles from where she was born, on a farm in Carroll County.
But her work affects farmers across the nation and as far away as the Ukraine.
As a member of the American Farm Bureau Association’s Women’s Committee, she lobbies Congress on issues ranging from capital gains taxes to reform of the Endangered Species Act.
Last fall, she ventured into international politics by participating in a farm aid program for the Ukraine and other developing democracies.
As part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, Dell joined nine other female farmers on a two-week trip to the eastern European country. The women had been asked to determine what Americans can do to help Ukrainians develop profitable farming businesses, she said.
The group consisted only of women because previous visitors had found that the women there needed to be shown “that together they can progress and have a say in the government,” Dell said.
Although Ukrainian farmers know how to farm, they have to learn to be more efficient, she said.
Her family’s experience raising 150 cows and growing soybeans, corn and other crops on about 1,000 acres proved useful. Her host family also produced milk, so Dell said she tried to share ways to improve production.
“In the evenings we sat around and talked through an interpreter,” she said.
She told them animals would catch diseases less frequently if they were properly inocculated, and farmers should choose only the most productive animals for breeding.
Gitte Herrmann, who helps coordinate the aid program for the USDA, said the American farm contingent succeeded in building Ukrainian womens’ confidence in a field traditionally dominated by men.
“Until our women came over, there had been no women’s movement in Ukraine ever,” said Herrmann, a volunteer with the Citizens’ Network for Foreign Affairs. “This was the first time they realized they could accomplish something by banding together.”
Dell and other program participants are now trying to raise $50,000 for a Ukrainian village. They hope to build a cannery, which would provide local citizens with a healthier diet throughout the year.
“They have beautiful gardens, but no way to preserve their food,” she said. “I can’t imagine what they’re eating when springtime comes.”
In the United States, Dell works to spread the word to farmers that the government passes many laws that affect the way they do their work. “You can’t just stand by and let things happen to you,” she said.
While her husband, a Carroll County commissioner, tackles local zoning laws and environmental regulations, she takes on the state and Congress.
“Women often have more time to go to Washington, do the phoning and write legislators,” she said. “Working farmers are usually too busy to do that.”
Leona said she spent considerable time this year lobbying members of Congress for reform of the Endangered Species Act.
“There are a lot of environmental laws that we are trying to make fair for farmers,” she said of the American Farm Bureau Association, which has 4.4 million member families.
“If you have a bald eagle on your land, you cannot farm there within a certain amount of yards. [Yet] common sense tells you the eagle won’t be there very long,” she said.
The reform bill gives property owners the right to refuse any conservation efforts on their land.
Dell said she has always been involved in farming and in farm issues. After growing up on a farm in Manchester, Md., she considered other careers, but then “love came in the way,” she said.
She met her husband, Donald, while attending the University of Maryland. “I have never seen a professor or anybody who I would trade my farmer for,” she said.
In 1950, two years after she and her husband married, they built their own house on the farm near Westminster. As the community changed, the Dells felt the need to get more involved in politics, she said.
“This area was rural then, but now it’s getting very urbanized,” she said. “We have people who own 1-acre lots and want to tell everyone else what to do.”
Her husband said it is important for women to get involved in farming issues because “farming is about families” and women sometimes approach tasks differently than men.
Dell said one of farm life’s perks is that she sees most of her children and grandchildren every day. Her two sons and three of her nine grandchildren work on the farm. She also has a daughter and a great grandson.
While she is happy that her sons decided to continue the family’s farming tradition, she said she worries about their future because of the little profits farmers make. “You don’t get more for milk than you did 10 to 15 years ago, but everything else has become so much more expensive,” she said. “I wonder whether they should be staying in this business.” -30-